Techniques: Introduction to Light Painting

Light painting is probably my favourite thing to do in photography. In essence, it is where you use a long exposure and some sort of light source to paint things in the air. You can use any sort of light source including sparklers, glow sticks, torches, el wire, tablet screen or the light on your phone. The applications of this technique are truly endless.

There are a couple things to keep in mind when trying light painting photographs. You have to focus the image before you start taking the photo. What I like to do is get the person to stand where they're going to be and hold a torch to them. Then I'll focus on them and switch to manual focus so that the focus is locked. Then you would use flash if you want the person to show up in the photo. The way it works is that if its complete darkness the camera will only record what it can see. This is why it’s important to shoot somewhere that is really dark, the more ambient light you have, the more difficult it is to control what shows up in the image.

Things that show up in the image are a combination of how bright they are/how long they are there for. A bright object needs to only be in the image for a very short amount of time while a dark object needs to be for a long period of time before it gets recorded.

So by flashing he subject in the beginning you will freeze whatever was in the frame at the time of the flash. If its complete darkness, the person can even walk away and the camera will have no idea because it has no way of seeing that they're gone. So then a second person can come with a torch or a glow stick and trace around draw around them whatever you want. Because the torch is so bright, it gets imprinted on the image straight away.

23mm 46s F6.3 ISO 100 Flash Fired

In this image, I used the torch to light up the person before the photo started to ensure they were in focus. Then I switched to manual focus to lock the focus on them. Then used front curtain sync flash to flash them so that they were frozen in the scene. Then went in with a glow stick and drew the images. I got them to stand there during the shot as this helped me know where to draw. However, because there was no light on them, it didn't matter if they were there or not. Then simply ended the exposure and that was the end of it.

Despite the fact that the person is instantly imprinted, I generally get the person to stay in the same spot until the photo is over so that the person doing the drawing knows where to draw. The key is to do it in the dark because then the camera will only see what gets lit up. You could have a thousand people running through your image but as long as none of them has any light on them, the camera won't see any of them. But if one has a light on them, they will show up. You can control how much your scene gets lit by using a torch to illuminate only the parts you want to show up. So sometimes the flash illuminates too much, so I use a torch to control exactly what gets seen by the camera.

A lot of the patterns and colours I did using el wire, torches or glow sticks where you spin them around or draw with them to create the images you want. So let's go through a particular image. In terms of shutter speed you need to determine what sort of shutter speed to use based on how long it would take you to draw everything. I often just switch to bulb mode so that I can just end the exposure after I am done creating the image. The other important thing to note is that when you're drawing to only switch on the torch once you're in position, if you turn it on and then walk into the frame, you will leave a trail of light showing where you came from. So remember, only turn on the torch once you're in position.

18mm 24s F2.2 ISO 100

This second one, same beginning, locking focus on where the person would be. In this case, the flash illuminated too much of the background which I didn't like. So I went close to them with a torch and shined it on them so that I could just get them in the image and not much of the wall behind. I had to be careful not to get any of the torch light on me otherwise I would have showed up in the photo. Usually wearing dark clothes and a hoody helps with this. My friend had el wire wrapped around his arms so after I ran over him with the torch, he just swung his arms around and then I ended the exposure.

Here are some more examples:

18mm 8s F2.2 ISO 100

For this one, I used a flash to illuminate my subject then walked in and used a small blue led light to paint the orb in his hand.

18mm 9s F3.5 ISO 100

For this shot, my subject started off crouching on the floor. I used a small torch to paint his body below the neck. Then I told him to stand up while holding the torch over his neck as he stood up. Then I just painted over the rest of his face with the torch and ended the photo.

​​23mm 17s F2.8 150 100

For this photo, the flash was illuminating too much so I used a small torch to illuminate him and then show just part of the other persons arm. Then I swung a red glow stick around to create the weird death portal.

18mm 24s F2.8 ISO 100

For this photo I fired the flash and captured my subject. Then I walked in a wrote the speech bubble and afterwards ended the exposure.

18mm 22s F2.8 ISO 100

For this photo I got someone to stand there in front of the camera and then I stood behind them with a torch. I then slowly placed the torch around the edges of my subject to give the slight outline.

18mm 19s F3.5 ISO 100

Here I used a stick with an LED strip on it to paint a background. I got someone to stand there to ensure there would be a silhouette

19mm 7.6s F6.3 ISO 100

Here I used three different glow sticks to cover the different parts of the Room

18mm 17s F7.1 ISO 100

This is similar to the previous one where I used a tablet to paint a background behind the person. Generally keep the brightness on the tablet down to prevent it from blowing out.

20mm 62s F2.2 ISO 100

Here I just fired the flash and then once it went off I went in and drew everything with a glow stick and a torch.

20mm 36s F3.2 ISO 100 Flash Fired

This photograph used a torch to create this effect. This is was not actually done in Photoshop but rather in camera. So the way it works is that you start with the person with their arms by their sides. Run over them once with a torch to illuminate them. Then, get them to raise their arms a little and run over just their arms with a torch. Then get them to raise their arms again and again run over their arms with a torch. Repeat this until their arms are over their head and then end the exposure.

18mm 44s F2.2 ISO 100

This one used an off camera flash to illuminate the subject while he spun around with a glow stick. He used El Wire here and tied a glow stick to the end of it. The red streaks are from the el wire while the blue is from the glow stick. The circles break because he set the glow stick to flashing mode. Here, again as they are not visible, just silhouettes, I did not use flash. .

25mm 15s F3.5 ISO 100 Flash Fired

Here, instead I just focused as usual and then started the exposure and traced around them with glow sticks. Then I ended the exposure

19mm 51s F5.6 ISO 100

In this case, I did not use flash at all because I did not want the entire scene to be lit up. Instead I focused the image on them before the shot and locked it as per usual. Then once the exposure began, I got close to them with a purple led light and illuminate their torso. Then I pulled out a green light and illuminated their face which is why they're two different colours. They had to hold still during this entire shot as I needed time to go over them with the torch as opposed to using the flash which would freeze everything instantly. They didn't have to hold perfectly still because the camera only recorded whatever I had my torch on at the time. But it is best if they hold as still as they can

18mm 43s F2.2 ISO 100

In this image, I did not use a flash to illuminate the person. I locked the focus as per usual and then got them to hold still and slowly circled them with a glow stick. The glow stick was the only source of illumination here so that's why they are not extremely bright like in the next image. Once I had finished circling them with the glow stick, I switched it off and ended the exposure

18mm 55s F6.3 ISO 100

The process for this was identical to the previous image but this time I did actually use a flash and obviously used a blue glow stick rather than a red one.

18mm 38s F6.3 ISO 100 Flash Fired

In this case, I wrapped the el wire around their hand and set an exposure of 10 seconds. For the first 9 seconds, they arm was still which allowed it to come out fairly clearly. The only light on the arm in this case was from the el wire itself, there were no other lights involved. However, at the last second, they moved their up diagonally up to leave those misty trails.

18mm 10s F2.5 ISO 100

In this image, the focus was not so important since everything was a silhouette. However, I still probably focused it anyway on the person in the same way I mentioned before. In this case because you can't see the person, I had no need to use the flash because I wasn't trying to make them visible. I got the person to stand as still as they could while I used my tablet to create the background. They had to stand there otherwise they would not have blocked the tablet from being seen by the camera which means if they weren't there the whole time, there would be no outline. I had my tablet running through a slideshow which helped create the various colours. Once I had covered the entire background, I simply ended the exposure and was all done.

20mm 18S F2.2 ISO 100

There is really so much you can do with light painting, I have so many photos I've taken using these techniques. The great part is you can really let your imagination run wild. So go ahead and have some fun with it. Just remember it's easiest to manipulate the light when you're in a very dark space.

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